A Northern Light

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 26, 2007


Per Petterson wasn't content to simply thank his mother and father as he accepted one of the world's richest book prizes. He kept on talking about them until he was nearly halfway through his seven-page speech.

Petterson was little known outside his native Norway before his novel "Out Stealing Horses" won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in June. The 55-year-old writer had beaten out finalists Cormac McCarthy, J.M. Coetzee, Julian Barnes and Jonathan Safran Foer for the 2007 prize, which comes with a 100,000-euro purse (then around $130,000) and goes to the best single work of fiction published in English anywhere in the world. Now there he was in Ireland, at the center of a pomp-filled ceremony in Dublin's city hall.

"Lord mayor, members of the jury, dear friends," Petterson began. "This is not meant to be sentimental, not even nostalgic, but I do want to tell you something about my parents."

"Out Stealing Horses" is hitting a number of best-of-the-year lists in the United States this month, but it is still not on the radar of most readers here. It is the story of a 67-year-old man, living alone, who is haunted by the memory of a boyhood summer with his father. Described by one judge as "a wonderfully subtle book," it was not directly inspired by Petterson's own family history. Yet family is its focus, as it is in all Petterson's work, and his two previous novels hit so close to home that he couldn't have published them if his mother and father were still alive.

Their end was shocking. On April 7, 1990, Petterson got a phone call from his ex-wife, who told him to turn on the TV. He saw images of a ferryboat in flames. One hundred fifty-nine people died, among them his parents and two of his three brothers, who had been traveling to a vacation cabin in Denmark.

At one point, the plan had been for Petterson to be on the ferry with them. But he did not mention that -- or even the fire itself -- in his Dublin speech.

Instead, he talked about the beautifully carved bookcase his father once bought, its shelves stocked with the previous owner's books. His father never got around to reading those books, but Petterson did.

And he talked about his mother, who owned not a single book herself but borrowed all kinds from the library and read so constantly "that I never saw her sleep."

* * *

He is a short, wiry man with an easy grin and the kind of weather-beaten face that might make you think "sailor" or "forest ranger" if you didn't know he was an Oslo-bred writer of prose. In Manhattan for a quick visit this fall -- a couple of readings, a reception at the Norwegian consulate -- he sips a Coke in the courtyard of his small hotel and talks, in excellent English, about books and writing and how he came to be who he is.

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